Future Tense

CAPTCHA May Finally Be Dying. May It Not Rest in Peace.

CAPTCHA got you down?

Image by Kruglov via Wikimedia Commons

It now feels perverse, but about a decade ago, when I first encountered the CAPTCHA system, I found it … satisfying. Even vindicating. I can’t recall what gibberish words I first correctly deciphered, but it was a moment I’d been awaiting since third grade. That year, my teacher summoned my parents to admonish them for my abysmal, no-good, impossible-to-read handwriting. This would be a recurring source of recrimination for me, so it was a redemptive moment when I realized that this skill I’d acquired of reading poorly formed letters, honed over decades, was not only useful, but a defining characteristic of what separated people from machines.

At first, CAPTCHA felt like a simple and agreeable game. You played it quickly, strengthening your bond with the rest of mankind, putting off the day machines will roam the Internet freely, and perhaps come to rule over us in some dystopian Matrix-like future, and went on about whatever mundane task you’d been trying to do—buy concert tickets, post a comment, whatever. It was a pleasant interruption, like a kindly stranger asking you directions before you went on your way.

But like so many things in life, that initial glow faded quickly. Instead of a quick and painless waypoint, the CAPTCHAs got harder in an effort to keep ahead of ever-smarter bots. Solving one no longer recalled the satisfying click of a fastened seat belt, but instead was akin to achieving a perfect seal on a generic imitation of a Ziploc bag. You could do it, but it’d be annoying, and it would take longer than you’d want it to, and even then not work as well as it was meant to.

As the CAPTCHAs were getting harder, I realized I wasn’t seeing so well and went to get glasses for the first time. Now, each time I failed one of those tests, en route to registering for a website I didn’t really want to have to register for anyway, I was left wondering whether it was the fault of my weakening eyes or the algorithm. I was afraid of being enfeebled while still a young man, left behind by technology, and wondering if the kids in school now could solve these CAPTCHAs easily.

So Wednesday’s news that Ticketmaster is abandoning CAPTCHA feels like a sort of vindication to me. It hasn’t just been me. The system is to blame.

If, though, this is progress after a fashion, let’s not take it to mean that computers are getting close to passing as human. CAPTCHA set out to be a way for a computer to be able to distinguish between one of its fellows and a person. The Turing test asks whether a human can make that same judgment, which is a very different question.

Ticketmaster customers will now face “phrases, questions or ads” during check-out. One would imagine that asking questions about the world might be a risky proposition, ignorance being rather more widely distributed than one would hope. It’s hard to come up with questions that can be reliably answered by any human being that stumbles across a given website. Another CAPTCHA alternative relies on authenticating users’ identities via credentials issued to them by Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and the like. CAPTCHA, for all its frustrations, was a mechanism that allowed for anonymity. You didn’t have to prove who you were, merely that you were. The loss of anonymity online brings a whole new set of headaches, more enduring and harder to parse than the transient ones brought about by a struggle with wobbly characters.

But I won’t miss trying to tell a 0 from an O, H from 4l, or q from g. It will make a funny story for future generations, that for about a decade at the beginning of the century, we’d agreed as a society that the defining mark of our shared humanity was an ability to read bad handwriting.